Reporting Crimes on Women: What Are the Laws and Why Are They Broken Every Time

Several news websites, including Janbharat Times, Telugu Circles, Bharat Headlines and Publicist Recorder used the same viral – and fake – photographs of a woman who was not the Hathras victim, in their reports on the incident.

New Delhi: Amid real life protests and social media outrage for the Dalit woman who succumbed to her injuries after she was brutally gangraped and injured in Hathras, a picture of a young woman went viral. Many social media users, some with several thousands of followers, tweeted it with outpourings of anger and condolence. However, a fact check by India Today found that the viral photo is of another girl, entirely unrelated to the incident.

Several news websites, including Janbharat Times, Telugu Circles, Bharat Headlines and Publicist Recorder used the same viral – and fake – photographs in their reports on the incident.

A screenshot of the Janbharat Times’ report with the fake image of the Hathras victim.

During the course of debates on gender violence, a heavily discussed aspect is the role of media and how coverage is taking place.

While in some cases, such as in the 2012 ‘Nirbhaya’ gangrape and murder case, relentless media reporting contributed to bringing the case to light, it is common knowledge that enthusiasm to cover the details of the case can result in the survivor’s identity being revealed to much emotional and other cost. 

Ethical journalism and guidelines of reporting

Similar to the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors which says never say no to a patient and respect the hard-won knowledge hence achieved, even journalists, though not formally, are required to follow five principles of ethical journalism —  truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability.

Even as Section 228A was inserted in the Indian Penal Code by the Criminal Law Amendment Act, in 1983, to prevent social victimisation or ostracism of the victim of a sexual offence, its compromise in the name of freedom of expression was widely prevalent, even during the coverage of the 2012 Delhi rape case.

The victim’s name was revealed, her photographs (taken both before and after the crime) were circulated by media houses, without any post-processing efforts like blurring, for more than a week. It was only later that a number of pseudonyms such as ‘Nirbhaya’ and ‘Amaanat’ were adopted by media organisations. Even those, many have argued, attempt to make heroes out of a woman whose basic rights had been grievously trampled upon.

Also read: The Media Needs To Rethink How It Reports Rape

Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code prohibits publishing the name of the victim or survivor in rape cases, including all categories of rape cases such as gang-rape, rape by a man with his wife during separation, rape by a public servant of a woman in his custody.

In case of the death of the victim, her next of kin can allow her name to be revealed by making a written statement to that effect to a registered welfare organisation. As per the law, the identity of the victim can be revealed in specific cases if the concerned police officers issue such a written order, or if the survivor states in writing that her name can be revealed.

The 2012 Delhi rape victim’s mother, notably, went on air saying that she did not object to her name being made public.

In January 2018, the abduction, rape, and murder case of an 8-year-old child in Kathua came to light. Social media saw an influx of messages with a hashtag that made her name public and several news outlets too used her name. In April 2018, the Supreme Court urged the media not to sensationalise rape cases and maintain a cap on the breadth of detailed coverage in terms of visual description.

The law has been enforced since 1983 and was strongly reinforced by the I&B ministry in 2012.

Apart from the IPC, several other guidelines have also been issued by media bodies to this end. One of them is Section 6 (ii) of the Press Council of India’s “Norms of Journalistic Conduct.”

These guidelines deal with the requirement to withhold the name of rape survivors from media reports and also reiterates that the names, photographs of the victims or other particulars leading to their identity shall not be published.

Why then, does media have to be reminded of the guidelines it has to follow and more importantly the ethics it has to comply with?

A peer-reviewed research paper by BMC Women’s Health titled ‘Media coverage of violence against women in India: a systematic study of a high profile rape case,’ published in January 2015, revealed that “the global media response of the  December 16th gang-rape in India resulted in highly inconsistent depiction of the events.”

It also mentioned that of the 534 published media reports which they identified, only 351 met their eligibility criteria.

Interestingly, as per the paper, the number of media reports increased after the victim had passed away. 

The authors’ content analysis revealed significant discrepancies between various media reports. “These findings suggest that although the spread of information through media is fast, it has major limitations,” the paper recognised.